Want to know how to get rid of that pain in your head?
Best make it a rope used to hang a criminal, advises another entry in the archive, a compendium that UCLA folklorists have been collecting for more than 50 years. If the rope was used in a suicide, states yet another, it has "special merits" and might help banish baldness and gray hair, too.
All of which begs the morbid question: Where does a person get a used hanging rope these days? EBay?
Eye of Newt, Toe of Frog
"You name something, and chances are somebody has used it for a headache," says Jan R. McTavish, assistant professor of history at Alcorn State University in Mississippi and author of Pain and Profits: The History of the Headache and Its Remedies. "Because headache is so wretchedly impervious to treatment, people thought, 'Your treatment is as good as mine.' "
From soaking your feet in hot water to bathing up to your hips in water nearly freezing, from wearing vinegar-drenched paper on your head to having tobacco smoke blown in your ears, headache sufferers have tried it all.
"Do you know how Queen Elizabeth cured Mary, Queen of Scots' headaches?" asks Dr. Seymour Diamond director and founder of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago and, most recently, author of a short history called Headache Though the Ages.
No, but we've got a pretty good idea …
"She cut off her head," Diamond concludes, proving that in some cases, the cure can be worse than the headache.
Wool of Bat, Tongue of Dog
For example, what's worse: struggling through a headache or rubbing an even number of mashed earthworms into your forehead and temples? How about wearing a dead salt herring or dead snake around your head, or binding a live frog to your noggin? (Remove if frog dies.)
Treating headaches with folk remedies often meant applying something directly to the painful spot, as history professor McTavish points out in her book, "based on the self-evident notion that the site of the pain should be the site of the treatment." People have reported placing upon their foreheads not only cool cloths scented with a little lavender or peppermint, they wore poultices of potatoes, "piles" of salt, skins of cucumbers, sprigs of Jimson weed and Pennsylvania Dutch buckwheat cakes.
As talismans against headache, they carried buckeyes and nuts. They wore rattles from rattlesnakes in their hatbands and favored necklaces of coral or jet, which were thought to have special powers, something like today's crystals.
And, says McTavish, "There seemed to be a real reliance on purges—get rid of whatever's in your gut that might be keeping you out of balance," something like today's colonics.
Avoid Your "Triggers"
Better, perhaps, to avoid getting headaches in the first place. To do that, headache patients of the past did what headache patients of the present do—they avoided their headache "triggers," actions that might bring on pain. Folk remedy triggers, however, can be quite different from today's familiar cautions to eat regularly, stick to a sleep schedule, manage stress and avoid too much red wine.
In folk medicine, whether or not your head hurt might depend on what happened after a haircut. If your tresses were spread by the wind, stepped upon by a man or picked up by a bird and used in the construction of a nest, you could expect a headache.
A man's hat was never to be placed on a bed because, depending on whom you ask, it could cause a headache for the person who put the hat on the bed or the hat's owner or the person who next slept in the bed.
Wearing a tight hat was thought to bring on headache, although once the headache arrived, binding the head with something else—a red bandana, a blue kitchen towel, a hangman's noose—might be a potential cure.
"Everything that caused a headache could also cure a headache," says McTavish. "It was a multifaceted problem, and really, it still is. There's still a lot of debate over what causes headaches and what alleviates them."
So, do any of the more colorful remedies work?
"Well," says Dr. Diamond, pausing to think. "I think cold pack is probably my favorite because it does help." Not only does it have a slight anesthetic effect, he says, "it may have a little psychological effect as well."
Psychology might help explain the popularity of many folk remedies for headache. "If they worked, they probably worked because the headache was going away anyway," says McTavish. "But people wouldn't have known that."
Kathleen Donnelly is a Seattle freelance writer who specializes in health, medicine, home and lifestyle topics. She has written extensively for Backpacker Magazine, The San Jose Mercury News and WebMD.com.
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